Image for The barenaked truth about strategy documents

*Diagram: Zeke never did take too kindly to bad strategy documents. Credit: Diagram by Glen Baxter

First published March 4

Here are some ‘objectives’ I randomly plucked out of three current government strategic plans. You know the type of document: the one that sits on the department or organisation’s website to demonstrate that they’re on the ball and forward thinking. It’ll be apparent that it’s a strategy document because it will have the words ‘strategic plan’ in the title.

They read like this.

• Develop and implement a stakeholder strategy
• Identify and implement infrastructure improvements to enhance road safety
• Leadership provides for informed decision making
• Take a leadership role
• High-level strategic intervention
• Strong national and international relationships
• An enriched visitor experience
• Deliver best-practice customer service across the organisation

Even at first glance I could tell that all three of my chosen strategy documents took quite a lot of effort and quite a long time to produce. Each has professional graphic design (the designer usually gets a plug on the inside-front cover). Each has a list of acknowledgements that tells me the consultation process was very long and needed lots of input from lots of folk. The forewords from VIPs promise that this wonderful strategy is now the cornerstone of endeavour for the department for the next 10 years (or words to that effect).

Now imagine you’re one of the people for whom the strategy was prepared. It doesn’t matter who you are or what field you work in, just imagine that you have an interest in the subject on which the strategy was written and you’re looking for some advice from the gurus who apparently know about such matters.

What the fuck do you do first?

It’s 10.30am on a Tuesday and you’ve just put on your special implementing hat, ready to get down to business. How do you begin ‘taking a leadership role’?

What’s the first step in implementing a stakeholder strategy?

When you deliver best practice customer service, what should you be wearing?

It’s like your beloved partner has written you a shopping list for the way home from work. You get to the supermarket, open it up, and it says, ‘Make sure everyone in the house has enough to eat into the future’, or ‘Ensure adequate nutrient count while keeping costs at a minimum’.

In a segment called How to do it, the Monty Python team once explained how to rid the world of all known diseases. First, they said, become a doctor and discover a cure for something. Then when people take notice of you, you can make sure they do everything right and there won’t be any diseases ever again.

It doesn’t really matter which industries or sectors my list came from. I’m certain that whatever area you work in you’ve seen a near-identical one somewhere deep in your own governance policies. Is your organisation’s goal ‘best practice leadership’? Are your corporate values ‘integrity’, ‘professionalism’, ‘relationship building’?

I bet I’m not far off.

It’s kind of refreshing to note that at one time, global megalith Pepsi had a goal that was elegant in its simplicity:

Beat Coke.

Now there’s an objective you can hang your hat off, albeit one that’s not especially useful if you’re the guy sitting at his desk on that particular Tuesday morning tasked with implementing the strategy.

Although it’s admirable to say ‘we want people to quit smoking through increasing awareness of the adverse health impacts’, in itself that is not a strategy.

The invasion of Normandy on D-Day was a strategy. What Monash did in WWI was strategic too. Neither the allied leaders nor Monash stopped work after ‘Launch an offensive with coordinated resources and overcome the enemy’.

Of course, you could stop me there and say that the kind of document I’m griping about is just the first step. That there are teams of people out there now working on the nitty gritty, based on the plan.

And there are good people doing good things out there. I’ve met lots of them. They’re talking to real people, spraying weeds, digging holes, planning hospital wings, picking up rubbish, distributing food. I just wonder a) whether they needed an expensively-produced strategic plan to help them do that, and b) how much of the departmental resources they received relative to those it took to develop the strategic plan.

In every industry we’re constantly told to ‘evaluate results’, though it seems the large-scale project that is the development of a strategy document is exempt from this step. Of course you can draw pie graphs of how many stakeholders were engaged, or how many tens of thousands of dollars were allocated, or how many hectares of weeds were controlled. But that is not an evaluation of the strategy. That’s just a measure of what happened during the year.

A true evaluation of the strategy itself would be, so what changed as a result of our producing this document? How many people read it? How many of them did something they would not have otherwise done, thanks to your guidance? To claim that the results of your day-to-day work activities (# weeds sprayed, # wars averted …) was the result of the strategy document is an insult to the people on the ground who, to put it simply, probably know how to do their fucking job, thank you very much.

To take it further, was the strategy set up in the first place with such an evaluation mechanism in place? How are you to know if the time spent developing the strategy was worth it? Just because the chair of your board gave everyone a pat on the back at the launch doesn’t mean the damn thing had any effect.

And after five or ten years of living with our strategic plan as some kind of organisational cornerstone, what do we do? We update the strategy, mainly so that now instead of reading ‘Strategic Plan 2010–2015’, it reads ‘Strategic Plan 2015–2020’.

Pats on the back all round, let’s hold a press conference. 

The primary beneficiary of such an undertaking is, in the vast majority of cases, the graphic designer who’s been engaged to make the document look nice.

Non-divisible barriers

A strategy, usually, involves someone doing something, probably something they weren’t already doing. Perhaps in concert with someone else, or perhaps they’re merely required to adopt a desirable behaviour (or cease an undesirable one) all on their own. There is an action that needs to take place.

But what is that action? Stop smoking? Start walking to work? Prevent the spread of the Northern Pacific seastar?

Personally, I’m getting a little tired of pseudo-psychological terms like ‘identify barriers’ and ‘implement change’, mainly because the people I know who use these terms don’t seem to understand them. In the same way that ‘establish strong leadership’ is not a strategy, we struggle when it comes to determining the real actions that need to happen in order to make something happen.

We tend to make false assumptions about what needs to happen. We just know, from the bottom of our heart, that if only we can only increase awareness about the benefits to our health of walking to work, or stopping smoking, or consuming less sugar, then the health crisis will be averted. In fact, awareness raising has been shown time and time again not to work. Not in the slightest. Yet it seems to be the starting point of every campaign, whether it be environmental or about personal health.

Flood people with as much persuasive information as you can muster, if you like, but I’ll guarantee you that very little will change. You might engender a bit of shock or horror, but very few of the rest of us will act in any meaningful way. (The government knows this very well, of course. They love it when they hear of an awareness campaign against them. It means they can relax.)

A Canadian gentleman named Doug McKenzie-Mohr has done lots of research that continually shows that flooding people with information is very near useless.  Instead he suggests digging a little deeper to identify the real barriers that prevent people from adopting a ‘desirable’ behaviour. We must identify the specific behaviour or action we want to change, then identify the barriers (or benefits) to that change.

He says that the behaviours you identify must be non-divisible. You should not be able to break up the desirable behaviours or actions into sub-actions.

‘Install insulation to reduce household energy consumption’ is a divisible action, and therefore not terribly helpful, because the barriers against installing ceiling insulation are different to those for installing wall or floor insulation. I can poke some Charlie Fluff into my ceiling cavity, but to do my walls I’ll need an expensive contractor.

Nor is it enough to say that ‘we want people to eat healthier’, because there are too many sub-behaviours in the mix. For someone to eat healthier a few things have to happen. First, they need access to healthy food (i.e. close by in their neighbourhood); they need to be able to afford to buy that food; they need to know how to cook it; and they need to want to do all this stuff instead of ordering a pizza. The barriers to healthy eating are complex and many, so simply making fresh food more easily available is only one piece of the puzzle.

Unfortunately, I suspect that there are a couple of reasons that most strategy documents do not carry useful, direct actions one can take to get the job done.

1. The authors don’t know enough about the subject to suggest any useful real-world actions.

2. The authors do know, but they’re not prepared to write specific suggestions lest someone take those suggestions on board and they don’t work. The more you get prescriptive, the more likely it is that you’re setting yourself up to fail. If you say that your goal is to ‘decrease the price of apples by 10% across all our stores within six months’, and then you don’t, you have literally failed. And failure doesn’t help your advancement prospects, hey.

Please, grow a pair. A strategy document should be a useful thing. It could actually help your people, your stakeholders, your community to do what has to be done, in clear, measurable steps.

*Bruce Ransley is Director of Impress: clear communication. He’s a technical writer and strategy adviser.

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